I am often asked about how to deal with sibling rivalry which is a normal but upsetting part of parenting. What is more damaging to the dynamic of the family is sibling bullying, which requires real intervention.
So let’s talk about the difference between the two:
Sibling Rivalry is often a display of jealousy and competition between children. Strategies of listening, setting limits, giving individual time and positive reinforcement will lessen these behaviors. Often kids outgrow this as they make their own friends and feel more confident by age 12.
Sibling Bullying is the dynamic or having a ‘bully child’ and a ‘victim child’. The bully constanly picks on the victim child who is usually younger, physically weaker or more sensitive. The bullying is aggressive with language, threatening behavior or even actual physical attack. The child being picked on often becomes more passive aggressive to get their revenge.
A child who bullies his sibling usually is acting out low self-esteem and self-doubt. The child may be making himself feel better by being the boss of his sibling or releasing some of his own pain by inflicting it on another.
What are some strategies to address this dynamic in your family:
- You have to challenge the bullying child’s thinking. State clearly that bullying a sibling is not only not acceptable but will be responded to with clear consequences
- Do not allow the victim child to continue in that role. Passive-aggressive behavior is not a good pattern to learn early in life. Both children will receive consequences for arguing. Violence, bad language, threatening behaviors will of course get more severe consequences.
- Talk with each child and investigate what is making them unhappy. Are there problems at school or with friends. Are they being bullied at school and are acting it out at home in order to feel some king of control. Sometimes we fail to recognize that are children are individuals who can be quite different. Acknowledge those differences and talk with each child about how they are special.
- Make sure all adult caretakers reinforce that a family is a ‘safe place’. “We help each other out in our family.” Model that message by making sure that there is fairness and no bullying in your adult relationships because children learn more from what you do, than what you say.
Take this behavior very seriously and take action. If you are feeling overwhelmed get help from family, friends, books or a professional. Use your support system and practice taking care of yourself. Like most important parenting issues it will take time, energy and consistent effort to meet this challenge.
By Terry Basile, MFT